Posted by: Providence Chamber of Commerce | October 3, 2011

GPCC’s Meet the New Leaders Recap in Projo

John Kostrzewa: R.I. business leaders agree taking speedy actions are key to success

The days are long gone when a new leader could take his time to learn the ropes at a new job, evaluate the staff, set priorities, form a strategic plan and then watch it roll out.

The world moves too fast now. The competition is too tough. Success or failure is decided by how quickly executives can head off or manage a crisis, or change the plan, again and again, as dictated by the market.

The challenge of being a manager these days became apparent when I listened to Tim Horan, president of National Grid’s business in Rhode Island and New Hampshire, and three other new leaders at a business breakfast sponsored by the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce.

Horan, a National Grid employee since 1988, took over in April, just a few months before Irene barreled up the East Coast and left 344,000 of its electricity customers in Rhode Island without power.

Horan had to coordinate the work of the company’s 900 employees in Rhode Island, the crews of about 1,500 workers from out-of-state, the emergency first responders, city workers and state officials. And he had to do it without knowing the strength of the storm or where exactly it would hit.

“Preparation and coordination are critical,” he told the audience.

National Grid’s customers and state regulators, who plan to start public hearings this week on how the company handled the crisis, will grade Horan’s performance.

But I’ll say this:

Horan, a retired U.S. Army colonel, had it right when he said leaders have to be visible and “on the front lines” during a crisis, directing the workers and explaining to the public what is going on during and after a disaster.

But they can’t do it alone. Another key role of a new manager, he said, is to “build a locally-focused core group of 10 to 12 experts” who know the state and can execute the plan to deliver or repair gas and electric service.

“A core team working together is critical,” he said.

Horan is doing his own review of National Grid’s performance and hinted at one adjustment, “We are looking to improve our direct communication with each city and town.”

The other three panelists also explained their challenges:

Dennis Keefe, president and CEO of Care New England, managed a three-hospital system in Massachusetts when that state enacted mandatory health care insurance and he learned the “good, the bad and the ugly of health care reform.”

He said he would use that experience in Rhode Island as the national health care plan is enacted. The goal, he said, is to integrate dozens of the hospital’s operating units with the health law changes while providing uniform, high-quality care.

Keefe said the CEO’s job is to be a “relentless cheerleader” who looks for small opportunities that can succeed and be built into a larger system.

“There will be incredible changes to health care in the next three to five years,” he said, “I think President Obama’s health-care law will survive … It will have to be managed.”

Mim Runey, president of the Providence campus of Johnson & Wales University, gave the crowd an insight into what large-scale management entails. She said one piece of the school’s strategic plan was to reverse the declining retention rate. That involves improving the school’s affordability, selectivity and academic quality.

By working on those issues at the same time, the retention rate has improved, she said.

“A goal has been to launch a communication plan to get students and administration to pay attention to what we wanted to accomplish,” she said. “There also has to be faith in leadership.”

Donald Farish, president of Roger Williams University, said it’s important to learn the unique culture of the campus while forming a strategic plan. The goal, he said, is to merge the quality of the work being done with the commitment of the staff and faculty. The vision can’t be just “three phone books” thick but one that can be used quickly.

The timeline is important.

“The longer the wait to act, nothing will change. If it happens too fast, no one will listen,” he said, “Our vision has to be easily agreed to so we can show a sense of progress…Unless people trust your judgment, they will be unlikely to follow you.”

When asked by the panel moderator about the “naysayers to a strategic plan. How do you get them to stop?” Farish answered, “Well, you fire them.”

His remark, made half in jest, brought the biggest laugh of the morning.

The crowd, and the leaders, knew that nothing is quite that simple in managing an organization these days.

John Kostrzewa is The Journal’s assistant managing editor/business, commerce & consumer issues. Reach him at 277-7330 or at jkostrze@projo.com


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